Tag Archives: Theology

5 Books that Rocked My Theology

The NuDunkers are busy folks this summer. We have had conferences, pilgrimages, vacations, and piles of work that waiting to be completed. With all these events going on a typical Hangout is difficult to pull off. So, I suggested we start a series of blog posts that could go up at any time discussing the 5 books that rocked our theological world.

Now, I am regretting that suggestion! At the time it sounded easy enough, but clearly keeping it to 5 books is nearly impossible. So I finally decided to leave out the articles and essays that have been central to my thinking. I also chose to avoid two key authors– Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I just could not pick a book each from these two men that would get to the significant role they have played in my theological reflection and spiritual life. In fact, I credit Merton and Nouwen for opening my eyes to the wider history of the church– a perspective that ultimately led to a PhD in Early Christian History.

So, now for the list. They are listed in alphabetical order by title so I can avoid having to make the even harder choice of trying to order them by influence!

After Christendom by Stanley Hauerwas

This was my first and only read of anything by Hauerwas. I first read it in Jeff Bach’s “Brethren Beliefs and Practices” class at Bethany Theological Seminary. That spring term I was also taking my introduction to Latin and felt like I wasn’t giving my reading the attention it needed. But when I opened After Christendom and saw that famed phrase– Outside of the Church there is no salvation– I knew I had to read closer. I hadn’t read any Post-Liberal theology, and nor did I know much critical theory or of the likes of DeCerteau. But since then, I have read Lindbeck, MacIntyre, DeCerteau and Charles Taylor, all of whom play significant roles in the argument of After Christendom. So, nearly ten years after first reading the book I find myself returning to it time and again, and nodding.

After Christendom finally gave me the frame to talk about how Enlightenment thinking has tried to supplant a rich theology of being the church. It also grounded a key theme in my own scholarly work– that of formative practices within Christian community. In my church work, his argument against a Christendom imaginary (to use Taylor’s later phrase) that has so defined the North American church. The link between these two parts of my writing is best summed up in Hauerwas’ phrase at the opening of After Christendom: “For the crucial divide in our time is not– as is often claimed– between modernity and postmodernity, but rather when the church is no longer able to shape the desires and habits of those who claim to be Christian.” (8)

Beyond his role in shaping my bibliography and argument, Hauerwas also kicked started a key conviction. I have often wondered how an Anglican ethicist could speak for my own tradition. After reading After Christendom I found myself asking where our (meaning Brethren) voices in the debate could be found. Clearly, Hauerwas knew of Anabaptism by working with John Howard Yoder, but if practices are so central to formation how could he effectively talk of the tradition from outside it’s way of life. I was convinced then, and continue to be so, that Brethren need to jump into the theological fray adding to and critiquing the Neo-Anabaptism rooted in Hauerwas.

A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone

Cone is certainly a controversial theologian, and his Black Theology of Liberation was clearly one of the most provocative. White theologians around the US still shudder to read his noted assertion that if Jesus Christ is not black we must kill him. In the midst of a class on Liberation Theology, Cone’s words and antagonism grated on a number of my classmates, many of whom were ideological pacifists.

I took two things away from Cone’s work. First, I can remember sitting in the reading room finally realizing what a true systematic theology looked like. Cone’s argument progresses through a doctrine of God, to Christology, and to Ecclesiology. I don’t know what triggered it, but I finally understood how a whole theological system plays out within the various categories of thinking.

Second, though I did bristle as some of his more provocative phrases, I knew I could not reject his argument just because I didn’t like what appeared to be a clear call for violence. I knew, as an emerging white theologian, I had to come to terms with how some theological tenants I had come to accept were in fact based in privilege. As I turned each page I knew I had to keep learning from Cone in order to hear how white thinking is engrained in the church. I had to hear how race experience in the US was formative of both black and whites, and come to think critically about how power is either claimed or rejected in light of those experiences. Cone clearly challenged me to think beyond “just theology” and recognize how power and privilege are too easily overlooked.

On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius of Alexandria

Given that my academic work is based in the fourth and fifth centuries I should comment on a book written in that period of time. Interestingly though, I do not go back to the works of Cassian (on whom I am writing my disseration), nor the desert monks of Egypt. Those works have certainly been formative for my thinking, but it was Athanasius’ treatise that finally sealed the deal in my Christology and its connection to Theosis in my thinking. Athanasius, though known as a politically savvy rhetorician, also spoke of the key to the Incarnation of the Word being God’s desire that we would return to God. In Athanasius’ words, “the Word become human so that humanity could become divine.” For us Protestants such a phrase seems nearly blasphemous, but I found it a beautiful way to link salvation and Christology in a way that countered our current popular understandings of atonement.

Athanasius was, then, for me the turning point in my thinking regarding the creeds. Though I often had said I could recite the creeds in general without much contradiction, I finally understood and accepted the classical orthodoxy of those statements of belief. In short, the statements of Nicea and Chalcedon finally made sense. Saying that Jesus is one with the Father, begotten not made, and that the human and divine were united in Christ without mixture or confusion aren’t just matters of historical story telling. They are now, for me, central components of my theology.

Scripture and Discernment by Luke Timothy Johnson

It would not be a stretch to say that this book was part of my own decision to head to Candler School of Theology to finish my Mdiv. I was getting a bit restless at Bethany after having completed an MA and beginning again with the Mdiv. One mentor asked me where I would go to study for my PhD, and immediately I thought of Emory, where both LTJ and Bondi were teaching. I was in a seminar with LTJ the spring my son was born, and I went to his office to discuss the things I needed to do in order to prepare for doctoral work. I will say that neither was easy. In less articulate words, he kicked my butt. Yet, I look back to those months with LTJ as formative for my work and understanding. At the end of the day it is difficult for me to unlink Scripture and Discernment from my personal experiences of LTJ, for both were clear turning points in my thinking and work.

In Scripture and Discernment Johnson studies the council narratives in the book of Acts. He explores how testimony and scripture were interwoven in the discernment of the first Christians. In a way, the church came to new understandings of old texts through the accounts of how Paul and Peter had experienced the working of the Holy Spirit. In a way, LTJ’s account of the church’s practice of discernment avoids the dichotomy between truth and experience. What is more, the church clearly plays a key role in testing these experiences and ultimately came out with a different, yet shared, understanding of the meaning of scripture. Though Johnson is Catholic, I found his account to speak to a rich theology of both the church (as in Anabaptism) and the Holy Spirit (as in Pietism). I still turn to Scripture and Discernment as a way to hold up church, Spirit, scripture, and experience as foundational elements of theology. They are not exclusive, but mutually informing.

The Way of the Pilgrim

I first read this Russian tale in a class during my undergrad at Manchester College (now University). Since the class was a January term, we were reading a book a night for two weeks. I certainly had skimmed the others, but this simple story was just too good to put down quickly.

The story is of a lay person who heard Paul’s admonition on I Thessalonians 5:7– to pray without ceasing– and went on a journey to find out how such a prayer was possible. He ended up in the cell of a hermit who gave him a set of beads. The instructions were simple– go off and pray the words of the Publican, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner,” a certain number of times. Week after week the pilgrim took on the task, and week after week the hermit instructed him to pray this Jesus Prayer more times. Soon the pilgrim was waking up early and staying up late just to get in the required number of prayers. Finally, the hermit stopped and sent him a way. The pilgrim soon found that though the tasks were no longer required he missed the frequent prayer. What is more he found the words coming to his lips at any given moment, and especially when he touched the beads in his pocket.

The story is the tale of the Jesus Prayer, and was part of the Hesychist tradition in Orthodox theology. The central idea is that the prayer clams the mind and stills the heart. I loved the simplicity of the story, the tactile nature of praying with beads, and the idea that unceasing prayer is possible. Since reading that book I have sought out how Christian cultures understand Paul’s admonition. It opened the door to explore the Hours of Prayer, led me to the monastic traditions, and has in some way contributed to my academic work with Cassian. Cassian’s noted discussions of prayer in his Conferences looked at two key scriptures in my faith journey. The first is the I Thessalonians 5:7 text and the other is Matthew 5:7– blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. In all my studies, these two scriptures surface again and again. As I look back, The Way of the Pilgrim was my first encounter with the practicality of unceasing prayer.

A list of just 5 books clearly does not do justice to the breadth of sources central to my thinking. Michele deCerteau, James K.A. Smith, Rowan Williams, Gregory of Nyssa, Richard Valantasis, Pierre Bourdieu, Patricia Cox Miller and Richard Rohr are often standards in all of my work. However, these books all arrived on my desk as a result of reading these 5. They simply set the course of my thinking and perspective, leading me into rich and plentiful fields of reading.

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The Prodigal God and Our Language

Some NuDunkers gathered in a Hangout last week to discuss Prodigal Christianity with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can catch the recording (with a few technical difficulties caught for your amusement!).

After some hours from the NuDunker hangout I’ll admit I came around. In the midst of it, however, I was not so convinced. Having entered three different graduate schools and taught just a few classes I’ve had to sit through the language games. In some cases there was an official orientation session regarding the expectations for language and in others it was a trial by fire. In each of these cases there was a desire to be both accurate and inclusive with our language for writing and doing theology. In many cases, however, the desire for inclusivity was overpowered by the easier policy choice of outright limiting the use of certain words. So as we began to talk about the role of language and words in Prodigal Christianity, I must admit I was a bit dismayed. There was so much to discuss about the book and I was afraid we were going to turn critical about the words other authors chose without getting the larger contributions of their writing.

So I’ve mused about this on a long car ride to Ohio.

We didn’t do the typical progressive move and ban words in the name of inclusivity. In fact we started to unearth some of the cultural and theological issues of signs, referents, games, and redemption. In the end, I am with Matt who pressed the conversation initially- the issue is not about the words themselves, but a missing range of images, metaphors, and words. The pastoral task- as named by Geoff during the hangout- is indeed the expanding of our bank of images and words to understand the great and often ineffable work of God around us.

Here are some of the (tentative) conclusions that surfaced for me in the course of my drive.

1) The issue is the USE of words, not the words themselves. Part of the use of these words, then, is the context within which it emerges. That was the thesis of my original post on Prodigal Christianity. In the cases of systematic theology, the starting point is the most crucial. So for Geoff and David to start with the Post-Christendom is a significant theological move. It is not tangential, but rather the core to the project itself. That is to say that the descending of the church from its position of cultural power is more faithful to the kenotic, kneeling nature of Christ. Thus, the entire matrix of the Prodigal God redefines the kingdom language itself. It puts such terms to use in favor of self-denial rather than denial or over powering of others.

It strikes me as interesting that for those most informed by the Deconstructionist play with language the impulse is to limit the meanings of words. Rather than press for more clarity or explanations, it seems that the reaction is often that words have a fixed meaning- ie they have baggage that places them in the problematic or banned outright categories. No where is it more clear that words do not mean what we often assume they mean than in the pages of Derrida. There, context and juxtaposition break open new or peripheral connotations- even at times the baggage is what is deconstructed.

2) Our word choice- whether by conscious choice or by range of vocabulary- draws lines. That is inevitable within theological discourse. The liberal move (both conservative and progressive) to set certain terms outside of the theological lexicon is to draw a line in the sand. It should then strike with some irony when those who favor inclusivity in practice champion the “unredeemable” nature of certain words.  It says to those who find meaning and liberation in certain words that they are patriarchal or colonial in their outlook simply because of their vocabulary (and not their practice). This is most problematic for me as I think back to experiences within African American churches where the words we were hung up on are still part of a clear “liberation theology” within which they are frequently used.

3) Thus, as I said in the hangout, the need for greater intercultural capacity is central to theological conversations. At the recent gathering of the Missio Alliance I found myself doing a lot of “translating”. While I can easily say that some of the vocabulary and even some of the questions were not my own, I was keen on discerning the context for the shared discussion. There were times I disagreed with some of the theological assertions (especially the assertion that our root problems were with the “Hellenization of the Hebrew narrative). However, I heard within the multiple cultures gathered there a desire to reclaim mission as the primary nature of the church.  There is clearly a negative approach to this- they are not speaking my language, not using my words so they must “not get it”. I really appreciated Dana pressing into the conversation by asking, not if the words were the wrong ones, but if there were other theological categories and assumptions at work. That question, to me, gets past the cultural questions and digs into the true distinctions. Also. Laura’s question about ritual and language needs further discussion and I think is a fruitful place for further conversation about the juxtaposition of words and signs.

The final pay off, for me, in the extended discussion of language and vocabulary was to identify the implications for the Incarnation of Christ for the way we understand our words.  To put it in the terms of Prodigal Christianity,  the Prodigality of God of the coming in the flesh, into a particular time and culture forces us to wrestle with the contingencies of language and embodiment. So, in the end, I am with Matt and Geoff, that the pastoral task is key. Our words are malleable and yet, it is always central to the theological (and intercultural) nature of our conversations to expand our vocabulary. Using one set of words to the exclusion of others is to limit our understanding and practice- whether the terms are masculine or feminine, kingdom or explicitly egalitarian.

In the end, this particular Hangout and discussion for the NuDunkers was a fruitful discussion of theological language. While I didn’t foresee that as the aim of the book, this is a good example of how the conversation matters, and that the contributions of those gathered enriches the conversation greatly.

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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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What is Missional Anyways?

In case you have had your head in the sand or just don’t pay attention to the forthcoming titles on publisher sites you probably haven’t heard that my Neo-Anabaptist, and fellow Chicagoans, Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have a new book coming in March. Check out their video discussion of why they wrote the book (filmed at a McDonald’s of course).

Emergent church guru Tony Jones picked up the video and reflected on the nature of names and how they serve as an umbrella term for a diverse range of folks, many of whom probably wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other.

“I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.”

Tony then offers a kind of rhetorical exercise:

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

There is some truth to the statement. Yet, it also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of just what is meant by Missional. Even a basic reading of one or two resources would reveal that what is meant by Missional is not just being about the work outside the church. So to actually answer Tony’s rhetorical test- Of course a leader wouldn’t say he or she is not missional, but it also does not mean they get the general assumptions within Missional Theology proper.

A quick glance at the table of contents of Prodigal Christianity reveals just what grounds Missional thinking– “Signpost One: Post-Christendom.” From the early works of Leslie Newbigin, the fundamental perspective of Mission Theology was the Church’s shift in cultural location. While this shift is clearly one still in process, it is evident both from the backlash of the religious right and the recent data on the rise of the nones (those who name no religious affiliation on American Religiosity studies) the church in North America is slipping from its once established cultural pedestal. As I have said in other settings, the logic of American experiment is reaching its logical conclusion. Missional thought, then, isn’t just about getting outside the church doors. Rather it begins with accepting Post-Christendom as a gift for the renewal of radical discipleship.

Unlike “emergent,” which purposefully focused on the questions and conversation, Missional Theology begins with this simple core understanding of the Church’s position within the wider cultural frame. While it indeed is a term that gathers together Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, and Jones’ favorite, Hauerwasian Mafia there is still a core imaginary that reaches across the spectrum. The Church is no longer the spiritual advisor to American culture.

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A Beautiful Chaos

Despite some technical juggling the NuDunkers just wrapped up a hangout. We had a great time thinking together about the Holy Spirit. If you caught the first introductory hangout, you might know that pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) was the impetus behind getting Dana, Brian, Andy, and myself talking and eventually starting NuDunkers.

In my travels over the last year I have been struck by just how many communities within the Church of the Brethren were gathering together around the theme of the Holy Spirit. In each of these settings, I noticed that Spirit language was common, but there was clearly a range of understandings about just what the Spirit does within out midst. As Dana said in our hangout, there is a clear drive to systematize just about everything in theology, and I want to avoid too rigid of a box. But still, it is interesting that a group of Non-Creedal Christians like the Brethren still maintain a Trinitarian frame to understanding God.

So just what is it that we are talking about with all this Holy Spirit language?

From our conversation I noticed two themes– the organizing and connecting nature of the Holy Spirit on one hand, and its unpredictable or beautiful chaos on the other.

Order-

Just as the Spirit of God blew across the water in the first days of creation, the Spirit works among us today bringing order out of the chaos of our own making. We often think that it is our institutional structures that keep us together. Yet it doesn’t take long in church life to see just how little boards and by-laws actually do. There is much in our shared life that is defined by and impacted by our relationship, conflicts, desires, and previous commitments. Or as some have said, their isn’t good rule that isn’t made to be broken.

So what keeps these people coming back together week after week despite differences? Anthropologists would tell us it is the impulse to community or the familiar, but I think theologians point to ways the Holy Spirit keeps us connected. In our shared baptism, the minister lays hands on us after immersion in the water to pray for the Spirit’s gracious presence to confirm the confession of faith. It is that shared access to God that links us together. Thus, by praying together, offering our supplications to God through the intercessions of the Spirit (Romans 8) we are brought together in ways that legislation simply cannot.

Chaos-

At the same time, though, the Holy Spirit “troubles the waters,” as the old spiritual reminds us. With all of our planning and organizing, working to sustain our faith through institutions the Spirit leads us beyond our plans. Supporting and connecting then, are not produced by our efforts, but by the Spirit. And that same Spirit has ways of going and coming that challenge our own attempts to nail it down. To us, that aspect of the Spirit’s movement appears as pure chaos compared to our attempts to order our shared life.

That is where the hangout conversation most struck me. In the conversation that took place on the event page, the term came up that best describes the Holy Spirit’s work- Beautiful Chaos. Beauty has a logic all its own and in many ways, what is deemed beautiful defies linear explanation. Chaos, even the grotesque, can have a kind of beauty to the eye. In those cases, logic and systematization cannot prevail. Rather, it is the sense of awe in the midst of lines, colors, shapes, textures, and perspective.

In the midst of the Spirit’s chaos we cannot help but stand in awe. It confounds even the wisest of persons. It reaches beyond our minds’ attempt to understand and to order. And yet, it comforts and convicts still the same. It is our link to God, by as individuals and a community or faith. It sustains. It empowers. And it guides us into the ways of God- here and now. That is beautiful chaos.

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Meet the NuDunkers

In the past week a series of blog posts have introduced a collective called the NuDunkers. This group has taken shape through the conversations between Dana Cassell, Andy Hamilton, Brian Gumm, and myself. Each of us is posting a take on the project. 

In the early 18th century a group of German Radical Pietists gathered together to study scripture together. Though it is often assumed that Pietism was rooted in Enlightenment individualism, these folks gathered together to explore the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and the outer words of the scriptures together. Eight of them decided that their discipleship to Jesus Christ called for them to baptize one another. Soon, they became known as the Neu Tauffers, or New Baptists. Those of the imperial churches, however, categorized them with disdain as Anabaptists, or Re-Baptizers.

In our day, many theologians and church leaders are returning to these Anabaptists thanks in part to the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. These Neo-Anabaptists seek to articulate a kind of Christianity not beholden to the magisterial thought and practice of Christendom traditions. Yet, Yoder’s vision of Mennonite theology and Hauerwas’ idealized community only speak of one segment of the Radical Reformation traditions. The denominations that emerged from the Dunkers of the 18th century, The Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church among them, present a form of Anabaptism that differs noticeably from that presented by readers of Yoder and Hauerwas.

It is this synthesis of Radical Pietism and Anabaptism that we as NuDunkers are seeking to articulate. The NuDunkers are a collective of practitioners who are seeking to understand our context and faith together. Our method of theological reflection is first dialogical across the miles using digital media as a vehicle for conversation. As partitioner theologians we speak from our experiences in ministry by working systematically through traditional categories and specific questions. In our desire to understand our faith lived out in these days, we are necessarily interpreters of scripture, experience, and heritage, all the while remaining missional in posture.

Four things are important to fill out here:

Theology is a Conversation– Whether we are continuing the dialog through the ages or are working out our faith today, we engage in a conversation. Just as the original Brethren gathered around the scriptures to discern their faith, the NuDunkers seek to make the conversational nature of theology explicit. By gathering a few “organic intellectuals” to reflect publicly about a question or topic, and then extending the conversation through blogs, we hope to encourage the conversation. With digital media we have an opportunity to model a vision of the church as a “multi-voiced” tradition.

Theology is Contextual– The greatest danger to theology or doctrine is the temptation to elevate it beyond the experiences of life. While truth is not relative, our understanding is. Just as the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem to recount the acts of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles, it is important for the partners in the conversation speak from their experiences of ministry. As we gather across the miles we seek to follow the pattern of testing our experiences against the outer words of scripture and the gathered community.

Theology is Seeking Understanding- The conversation then, is hermeneutical in method. By bringing together our contextual experiences we seek to understand what God is doing in the world. Following the maxim of Anselm, our faith is seeking understanding.

Theology is Missional– The Anabaptist witness through the ages has been to question the Christendom model of being the church. Though some elements of the Anabaptist traditions have adopted an Enlightenment vision of Christendom, the NuDunkers seek to be explicit about the Missional nature of the church in whatever context it resides. The church’s acts- both of peacemaking and evangelism- emerge out of the Missio Dei. Rather than assuming cultural hegemony is the means of change, the NuDunkers take seriously formation of persons in the Upside Down Kingdom of the church.

These are the NuDunkers. Join us in the conversation.

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All about Desire

In a recent blog post over at “There is Power in the Blog” I argued that ascetic Christianity offers a helpful corrective to liberal forms of the faith, both progressive and conservative. In the comments Scott Holland, professor of theology and peace studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, asked a helpful question that some how slipped my awareness until recently.

I’m interested in your familiar refrain about “the re-ordering of desire.” Must desire always be re-ordered? Doesn’t this refrain imply that the desire of earthly delights is debased? There are spiritual traditions that insist the relationship with the divine is not a gnosis but rather an eros, a desire.

The question is intriguing and worth some extended reflections.

I often turn to Mary Margaret Funk when talking about asceticism. The general knowledge base regarding askesis is often formed by a medieval form of practice something akin to the penitential monks that frequently appear in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As these monks enter each scene they intone in flat Latin chant “Pie Jesu…” and bang their head with a board. This penitential, self abusing parody speaks volumes. Asceticism in this popular view is a process of self denial and even abuse that seeks to purge desire from the human person. Funk, on the other hand, in her book “Thoughts Matter” states very plainly that the monastic project was not the eradication of desire, but the “right ordering of desire.”

So the simple answer to the question is that no, earthly desires are not debased. Rather they are to be understood in their place and for their effects. John Cassian, my dissertation companion for the next two years, often speaks of desires wrongly engaged. Rather than reject them outright, Cassian often speaks of our desires for “earthly things” as a diagnostic for what is out of place within the heart. This is especially clear as he talks of sex and food. These two things are not categorized as evil but rather as desires that must be monitored. In fact, our hunger and lust are often signals within Cassian’s system that the heart is focused on other matters, mostly self gratifying in nature.

All this is to say that desire is not evil, rather the impact and telos of our desires must be discerned. Desire, un-ordered or grounded in self seeking, is to be shunned. Yet, desire for things as a windows into Divine wisdom is to be embraced. Thus, desire as a general category is neutral but the effects are not. To turn toward desire of “earthly pleasures” for the sake of our own self-centered consumption are evil. Yet, these desires and enjoyment for the sake of God and neighbor are to be celebrated and cultivated.

Of course this makes sense especially within the Neo-Platonic ontological system. That is to say, desire and its ordering is best understood in what is often called the hierarchy of being. All things that exist participate in God to varying degrees. The more material things around us fall at the lower end of the ladder while the more spiritual things towards the higher, God-end of the hierarchy. Augustine famously uses this frame work as he defines evil as the absence of the good- so far at the bottom of the hierarchy that it moves into death.

In this frame, sin is to look down the ladder towards death and away from God. Repentance, or metanoia, as a turning makes the most sense in that it is a literal turning of one’s gaze from down to up. Reordering of desire then, is what James K. A. Smith speaks of as aiming our desires toward God.

Two things emerge from this system and understanding. First, repentance and turning from evil is not a rejection of earthly things, but a re-understanding of them in light of their participation in God. To color our desires with evil is to see them as objects for our consumption and self-gratification. When we reorient our desires and pleasures they are all seen as joyous windows into God’s goodness and sustaining of life, not just our own self-centered life but for the whole of creation.

Second, desire in this frame is teleological. There is an end or object of desire. Put in plain english, we desire something or someone. When desire is disordered it seeks these objects as things to be consumed by us. Food or people get sucked into our obsession with self-gratification. When it is re-oriented by Christian practice our desire is set like an arrows toward God- increasing our understanding, our resolve, and the common good of all God’s creation. Thus, the objects of our desire in this way are partners in our shared ascent to God- not stepping stones or consumables- but companions on a journey.

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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A Place for Women, or Women in Their Place?

Two events took place in the last several weeks. First, an important blog post by Scott McKnight, with the provocative title “Don’t Ordain Women? Stop Baptizing Them!” circulated the blogosphere. By sharing this post recently a great conversation with a good theologian friend emerged regarding the role of the Holy Spirit and anointing. 

A week later I received a letter asking about a recent article of mine in our denominational magazine. The crux of the question revolved around a short sentence about men and women being raised up into leadership within the church. As you may guess, the writer wanted to make sure I was following the proper New Testament setting for women in the church. 

Having just had a helpful discussion on the topic I sat down to pen a response. As I finished I thought it would be a helpful summary to share with a wider audience. 

That said, let me be clear. I did not write this, nor do I wish, to “excommunicate” those parts of the Christian church which have defined ministry or priesthood as a vocation for men only. To be sure, I disagree with them. But I also have not “excommunicated” myself by sitting under women preachers in my life of faith. What is more, I believe that ordaining women is equally valid on Biblical grounds. 

What follows is my own brief outline to the question:

As I re-read your letter, it appears as though the deeper concern is about women in prophetic or leadership roles. While there is a stream in our tradition that has limited the roles of women on biblical grounds, there is also an equally demanding tradition in the scriptures themselves that points to women as significant leaders in the early church. First and foremost it is clear in Acts 2:17 as Peter invokes the book of Joel, that women will also prophesy along side men.

What is more, even Paul himself frequently recognizes women in closing greetings of his letters- most notably Phoebe, who is a deacon sent to the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2). She does not appear to have been a “table server” as the name of deacon implies from the early chapters of Acts, but was clearly one with the authority to make requests of the church. Even then in Romans 16, men do not show up in this greeting until the later verses, and only after several more women leaders have been named.

Something happens, then, between the pages of Acts and Romans and the First Letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:9-12). To claim that there is one ethic, or norm, regarding women in ministry is incorrect. Rather, the scriptures witness to a great many women who have had significant roles in the sharing of the gospel.

Our spiritual ancestors in 18th century Pietism took this to heart. Access to the Holy Spirit was not limited by gender. In fact, Pietist women were some of the greatest preachers and writers of the time. As the story of our own Sarah Righter Major points out, even an elder, who was sent to reprimand her for preaching in the company of men, returned saying that he could not do such a thing since her gift of preaching exceeded his own.

Even more to the point sister Anna Mouw once wrote that “The question is really not women with men in the ministry, or men only in the ministry; the question is, ‘Is the message from the Lord?’  and ‘Is the Lord represented?'” (Anna Mow, Brethren Life and Thought Spring 1967)

Brother, I do hope that this is part of a larger conversation Yet, I stand by my statement you quoted in the letter- the leaders and prophets of our tradition, men and women, are being raised up among us right now. And I do not think that such a conviction betrays the New Testament.

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Easter Proclamation- Old School

This is one of those years when religious calendars line up. Easter celebrations of the Roman and Orthodox are in the process of being celebrated around the world. Proclamations of Christ is Risen will be said in nearly every language through the night into the rising sun on the 8th day- the day of re-creation.

Thinking about this amazing proclamation I decided to read the Pascal Homily of John Chrysostom- who should probably be taken up as the patron saint of Post-Christendom movements, for he “was fearless when denouncing offences in high places.”  His short, but rhetorically beautiful and complex homily should be required reading of any preacher or prophet.

Here is a taste of its excellence:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I can nearly hear the cheers in response to this spectacular conclusion echoing throughout Hagia Sophia then and around the world tonight.

Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen!!

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